THAT NIGHT WE DIED (well, one of us)

Reading a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times (Jane Smiley on Ronald Frame’s Havisham), I was struck by the thought that I had almost killed my mother. What is compelling about the thought, for me, is not the expected; after all, I’m not talking about homicide. No, it’s the reversal. You see, I was born dead in a Catholic hospital. That’s the way I’ve always understood the story.

Her pregnancy had not been a particularly difficult one physically, but my mother had had a hard time emotionally over the nine months. She and my father had been married for two years before she became pregnant, unusual for young couples at the tail-end of the Depression. She had, by her account, enjoyed those two years; they were an attractive couple and had a good time going to dances and bars. (One night, three years before they were married, they had gone to a dance marathon over in Bossier City and found themselves sitting in the same bleacher seats around the dance floor with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Later that night, Barrow and Parker were shot to death on a country road by deputies. My father told me he recognized Barrow because one of Barrow’s gang was the son of a friend of my grandfather and they would come by the house late at night to buy the bootleg hooch my grandfather made.)

My mother was what we might today call a narcissistic personality. She not only enjoyed being at the center of things, she was, as far as her sense of responsibility to the world around her was concerned, the center of things. Going from favored youngest daughter  to adored wife was just fine for her (although she didn’t enjoy having been upstaged by the baby brother that came along ten years into her reign, thirty-five years after my grandmother had given birth to her first child). Her own baby business was another matter and the build-up to my appearance was fraught with depression and anger. Physically, matters were complicated by a thyroid deficiency which added to her weight gain, no small problem for a vain girl just turned twenty, and a car accident in her eighth month scared both her and my dad.

But the real problem was the physical reality of me. Somehow, I got caught in the canal and my shoulder was misaligned. Even more dire was the fact that I had an unusually large head. That night hours went by and I am sure we both suffered a great deal. Finally, forceps were used with only one thought, to get me out in whatever condition. And they did. The forceps tore a long gash from my chin to my forehead on the right side, ripping through my mouth, my cheek, my eyebrow and into my skull. A similar path, somewhat smaller, was traced on the back of my head. My left shoulder was twisted toward my chest. And I was dead. The surgical nurse put my body in a basin and returned to the operating table. The problem was to stop my mother from bleeding to death or dying of shock.

At that moment, one of the nursing supervisors came in. She had heard there were problems. “The child is dead,” said the doctor. “We’re trying to save the mother.” The priorities here are important, I think. This was 73 years ago in a Catholic hospital. Policy was then, as perhaps now in some places similar, to concentrate on saving the life of the child, even at the cost of the mother’s life. Only when I was pronounced dead could attention be redirected toward my mother….well, I suppose at that point she wasn’t my mother because there was no “me” in specific terms.

I don’t know what was done to save her, but it was done. I was, for the moment, a footnote. But the nursing sister picked up the basin with me in it and walked out of the operating room to an adjacent one. There she slapped me around, breathed into my lungs, massaged my chest, and I came alive. The rest, as they say, is history.

But I’m intrigued by the possibilities for writing history that escaped us all that night. What if I had stayed dead and my mother had survived? Would she have eventually had a child? She never had another after me. And if she had died and I had lived? How would my father have coped with the loss and the responsibility? Who would have loved him, raised me? What if we both had died? What would he have done? Where would he have gone? It strikes me, for example, that without a wife and child he would have been moved up in the draft and instead of going off in 1945, arriving off the shore of Japan to await the invasion only to witness the cataclysms that were Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he might have died himself at Normandy or in the Ardennes. And me, what about me, the one who died and came back to life? I’ve been pretty ok most of my life. I’m considered smart by some. But what about all those minutes (how many?) of no oxygen? How many brain cells did I lose? Would I have been brilliant? What did I forfeit? Or, maybe, the effect is the reverse. What if I am only as smart as I can manage to be because of some rearrangement of my brain cells that early morning of December 28, 1940, some synaptic reshuffling so I could play with a full deck, some lucky roll of the dice that came up seven, for the moment?

I’m not sure she ever forgave me for almost killing her, my mother. Then again, I’m not sure she ever forgave me for surviving. I think there is nothing a narcissist hates more that sharing the universe. But such thoughts might be unfair to her. “Hate” is probably too strong a word for what I think she felt over the years. I, and my father, were just obstacles in her daily struggle to reveal herself to the world, to have it pay attention. To her, adoration was a zero-sum game.


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